Field Study and Service-Learning MediaBlog

26 February, 2011

El JardÍn la Aroma-Tica

Fervently interested in the art of sustainable agriculture and plants with medicinal qualities, our group ventured to El JardÍn la Aroma-Tica, a 5 Ha. organic farm located near La Fortuna. The owners, Christina Berrocal and her husband, provided us with the opportunity for some experiential learning and a glimpse into the processes of their sustainable business. Fifteen years ago, Christina became a member of 'Grupo Ecologico de Mujeres de Abanico' (GEMA), a women's cooperative in which individual families cultivate and package medicinal plant products. She is one of the eleven members involved in this organization and produces herbal tea's and shampoo. In total, the farm supports 150 medicinal, edible, and aromatic plants, cows and chickens. The entire production system incorporates principles of sustainability and supplies environmentally friendly products that support human health. We began our day by traversing the garden paths sheathed with wild grasses and surrounded by an array of healing herbs. As we explored the garden, Christina described the various uses of her plants, the parts used create remedies, and allowed us to experience the smells and tastes of many herbs. Her collection ranged from plants with cancer inhibiting properties, such as Cat's Claw, to dandruff relieving Indigo. After the enlightening tour we were ready to understand how the biodynamic system functions.

Nine cows play an integral role in Christina's business. To begin with, the cows milk is extracted, used by the household and sold in the community. The foundational components of the businesses operation derive from the excrements collected daily which are used as fertilizer and as a source of energy. 75 to 90 percent of plant nutrients fed to animals are excreted in their manure. This means that the nutrients channeled by the plants from the soil are stored in the plant's biomass which are later consumed by the cows and finally excreted . The nutrient-rich manure is recycled into the soil to enhance it's quality. Manure not only adds organic matter into the terrain, but it also serves as a soil conditioner and a compost ingredient. When cow waste is mixed into the soil, moisture is retained, compaction is prevented, nutrients do not leech away, and the soil's pH is balanced. Instead of the cow excrements becoming runoff and contaminating the local water systems it is collected and recycled into the farm. The reuse of the organic matter relieves any need of inputing harmful chemicals, saves money, and reduces environmental pollutants.

A biodynamic system takes advantages of the natural interactions in an ecosystem as well as the multiple uses of each resource. Interestingly enough, Christina's kitchen is fueled by gas derived from the cows manure. A few years ago ICE, Instituto Costaricense de Electricidad, Costa Rica's main energy provider, facilitated Christina with a biodigestor bag and training at no cost. This system enabled her to provide the kitchen with renewable energy and served as an incentive to prevent the cow waste from potentially entering the hydraulic systems. Everyday, Christina and her husband mix 2 large buckets of cow manure with 6 buckets of water (1:3 ratio) and stir until the mixture is liquidated. The organic substance is poured into the large bag where a continuous flow has been established. Anaerobic bacteria, breakdown the biodegradable material in the bag without oxygen and produces a byproduct of methane, carbon dioxide and liquid. The gas inflates the bag and the nutrient-rich liquid, or digestate, gradually runs out one end and fertilizes the crops. The pressure from the biogas pushes up into a tube connecting the bag to the roof of the house where the energy is dispersed into the kitchen and used to make the herbal shampoo. This system allows the farm to be self-powered, replaces the use of fossil fuels, enables the shampoo production to be sustainable, provides the soil with nutrients, and maintains the ecological balance of the environment.

Compost, decomposed plant matter, is recycled as a fertilizer. Adding compost to soil enhances it's quality and is a key ingredient to organic farming. One way to speed up the decomposition process and reduce the workload is to add a specie of earthworms to the composting matter to feed on organic waste. This method termed vermiculture, is an important property that contributes to the richness of Christina's soil. She uses Red Wigglers to breakdown vegetable or food waste, and bedding materials. Food scraps, newspaper, soil, and cow manure are combined with the worms in a large wooden bin. The worms feed on these materials and break-down them down into simple properties. The end-product, or the worms' waste, is a heterogenous mixture of organic matter containing water-soluble nutrients and nutrient-rich organic fertilizer to be applied to the garden. Red Wigglers are recommend because the have great appetites (they eat more than their weight in food everyday!) and breed very quickly. Vermicompost increases plant growth, conserves the soil, and is a great way to recycle your food and bedding scraps!

There was an abundance of lush compost ready to be applied to the soil! Erica, Miguel, Tait and I filled sacks with the natural fertilizer
and spread it among the bases of the plants in the greenhouse to enrich the soil quality. Using a shovel, we made spaces around the edges of the plants and filled them with compost to promote their growth. Remaining cautious not to damage the delicate roots, we continued this process until we distributed the organic matter around every herb. Amanda and Joan harvested Tilo Criollo, Justicia pectoralis, the herb most sought after by the purchasing companies. This water-willow is commonly known as Tilo in latin America. In folk medicine, Tilo is used as a tranquilizer, alleviates headaches, is an anti-inflammatory agent, and fortifies the nervous system. No wonder it's in high demand.

Joan and Amanda placed the harvested herbs in the solar dryer. Christina efficiently uses the sun's renewable and powerful energy to dry the herbs. The solar dryer applies the greenhouse effect to trap and contain heat. Strong UV rays are able to enter the greenhouse. Some of the energy from the solar radiation is absorbed by the interior properties, including the plants. The quality of the energy degrades to infrared radiation which gets trapped in the greenhouse since it is not strong enough to escape. Sunlight is continuously being trapped in the solar dryer resulting in an accumulation of heat. On an average sunny day, the herbs are dried in 2 days. On rainy days the process lasts from 5-7 days. Once again Christina's methods take advantage of the natural resources in a sustainable way. This is an energy efficient, long-term, inexpensive, and environmentally sound system.

The biodiversity supported by El Jardin Aroma-Tico facilitates natural tropical interactions while making use of the land, conserving soil, and attracting a variety of pollinating species. Christina's farm, she and her family included, is self-efficient. She makes simple manipulations and leaves the rest to nature. All of the agricultural inputs derive from her land. Her system displays a continuous flow of matter and energy and promotes natural ecological functions as opposed to degrading them. El Jardin Aroma-Tica is a haven of healing plants for human organisms that does not sacrifice the environment's equilibrium and instead works along it's very side. Christina is able to make an income while practicing environmental stewardship. Essentially this farm is run by applying the knowledge of natural ecosystem functions and is living proof that sustainable businesses can be successful in every sector; ecologically, economically, and socially.

Posted By: Jeanne LaRoche